Recently, I had a conversation with an Indiana politician who struggled to get black voters to the polls during his last campaign.
He noted he visited with many of the clergy in the area, hoping they would help turn out the black vote. I tried to explain that he might have needed to connect with voters outside the black church, because not all black people go to church. He pushed back and explained that, in his community, talking to clergy was the most effective way to reach the black community. However, he then went on to express his disappointment in not getting at least 20% black voter turnout, which was one of the reasons he lost the race.
I didn’t have the heart to suggest to this obviously intelligent man that, if you didn’t get the desired results from reaching out only to black clergy, maybe it wasn’t the best—or only—way.
It has been said before—the black community is not a monolith. Now it is important to understand what that means. Yes, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center report, blacks identify as “more religious” than both whites and Latinos. But that doesn’t mean all blacks follow the Christian faith and attend Christian churches on a regular basis. It is important to understand this distinction because candidates are missing voting blocs in the black community.
It is understandable why many outside the black community associate black politics with the black church. For so long, America was a segregated nation, and blacks weren’t given the opportunity to participate fully in the Democratic process. The black church was where organizing occurred. Parishioners felt safe to have political meetings and the church cultivated community leaders. But things change, and campaigns must also change and expand their approach to black communities.
As the Pew research shows, a full 79% of blacks identify as Christian, leaving 21% who are of other faiths or of no faith. But even among the high percentage of blacks who identify as a person of faith, only 47% attend religious services on a regular basis. If a campaign’s only strategy is the black Christian church, that campaign’s message is failing to reach more than half the black population. And that can’t be considered a winning strategy.
(I won’t even get into a conversation about showing up to black churches two weeks before Election Day—when you haven’t previously engaged the community—and think that is sufficient. Show some respect.)
We can’t increase black voter turnout if we ignore 53% of the black population. Meet voters where they are. Dedicate time and effort into connecting with black voters at black small-business events, service-industry worker organizations, sororities and fraternities, and, yes, even the beauty and barber shops.
Connect with the black voter the same way one would with any other voter—and not at the last minute. Do the hard work and inspire black voters to turn out. Building relationships builds community confidence. If campaigns don’t step outside the black church to increase black voter turnout, races will be lost.
Primary season is complete; most campaigns are moving into general election mode. There is enough time to devise a real strategy to engage black communities. Don’t be half-hearted and unimaginative in campaigning and think it is only necessary to engage Christian black voters who attend church regularly to encourage greater black voter turnout.•
Black is deputy chairwoman for engagement for the Indiana Democratic Party and a former candidate for the Indiana House. Send comments to email@example.com.
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